Long ago, before tribes of management gurus inhabited industry’s every corner, there was an automaker widely admired as the largest and most innovative company in all the land.
Then, one day — during the final days of a world war — the firm’s CEO told the firm’s CFO that he would like to retire.
The CFO smiled and confided that he, too, would then choose to retire. After all, the company had really been built by the CEO and CFO in lockstep, and in lockstep the two men would now concede their power to a new generation. And so the two men agreed that once the world war had ended, their retirement would commence. “But wait!” exclaimed the CFO. “We have made a contribution here to industry, and it would be a mistake for us not to share it for the betterment of all.”
The CEO nodded, knowing that the contribution was unique — not an automobile or a service, but a business model — a macramé of financial tools and organizational approaches. The CEO urged caution, knowing that what the CFO was suggesting would require engaging an impartial and astute observer, someone from outside the firm who possessed the correct combination of faculties to grasp, present, and articulate the two men’s sizable contribution to the world of business.
The CFO then nodded and reported that he knew of just such an astute observer — a man who had recently been revered as a business visionary, a soothsayer for all of industry.The CFO stated confidently that this observer would ensure that their story would stir the masses and forever be imprinted on the annals of business. The CEO remained guarded, but permitted his CFO to extend the invitation.
Years would pass, and the soothsayer’s book arrived only months before the retirements of the two men — and just as the CFO had expected, the world was astonished and enthralled by all of what the text revealed.
Yet, much to the two men’s chagrin, the acclaimed soothsayer purposely cast forth a playfully abbreviated notion of the company’s business, one that steadfastly ignored the CFO’s financial tools that had weighed, measured, and incentivized its activities.
The book, they concluded, told only half of the story, while altogether ignoring what should have been regaled as their greatest contribution: the thoughtful and intricate web that had bonded the company’s financial tools with its management approaches. What’s more, the soothsayer — who would henceforth go by the designation “management thinker” — took an enterprising shot at the very man who had invited him inside.
With regard to the company’s esteemed CFO, he wrote: “Yet while he was universally admired throughout the company, and known as a truly wise person, most managers wanted as little to do with him as possible. They simply could not understand a word he was saying. He was dependent on the CEO to translate him.”1
And so it was with these words and others like them that the newly minted management thinker drew forth management as a stand-alone discipline while he purposely and swiftly marginalized finance.
Perhaps to his credit, the CEO, whose management approaches were largely explored throughout the book, refused to ever acknowledge the text or its author in any way and promised his CFO that he would someday write about their contribution and tell the complete story. 2
However, in the years that followed, many others followed the soothsayer’s path and routinely turned a blind eye to finance. They sought to savor the fruits of a so-called “management boom,” and together their writings pulled down an Iron Curtain — one that assured that the discipline of management would be segregated from finance for decades to come.
From that time forward, finance has been known as management’s blind eye, an innocent victim of a soothsayer’s curse. – Jack Sweeney
- Peter Drucker, describing GM’s historic CFO, Donaldson Brown, in Adventures of a Bystander, (1978).
- My Years With General Motors (1964) Alfred P. Sloan, Jr.